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02/20/19 | Menu-Homepage, OOO

Surviving Work Obsession: A Story About Setting Boundaries

Not long ago, I found myself laying on my bathroom floor and realized that I had become work-obsessed.  I don’t mean to say this in that annoying humblebraggy, woe-is-me-I-worked-80-hours-this-week-because-I’m-a-really-big-deal kind of way.  I’m not proud of it.

At the time, I was an ambitious project manager working for a tech firm who had just landed the largest account in the company’s history. The first task at hand was to organize a kick-off meeting with the client’s leadership team to get together for a day of introductions and planning.  The date was set, and the client’s top team would be flying in from the east coast, bringing their high expectations (because in corporate America, when executives fly in, we take them much more seriously than if they teleport or arrive by mule.)

For weeks leading up to the event, my life centered around preparing for The Big Meeting.  I worked long hours, late nights and weekends, obsessing over every imaginable detail. I prepared high gloss full-color binders, a minute-by-minute socially-engineered agenda, and presentation slides with highly unnecessary animation effects. I pre-ordered lunches and made certain none of the attendees had peanut or shellfish allergies.  (I considered having an EpiPen on hand just in case, but there simply wasn’t enough in the budget.) 

The evening before the big day, I nagged building ops to adjust the air temp to a perfect climate and then I disaster-tested the projector four more times.  Finally, after one last mental dress rehearsal, I was ready to execute with Seal Team precision.  

That night, despite my husband’s belief that I had gone overboard, he acknowledged my efforts by taking me out to a nice dinner.  I had the mahi-mahi.

At 4 am, my eyes popped open and I lunged out of bed, catapulting straight into the bathroom, where I experienced a gastrointestinal assault that physically and emotionally violated me in my own home for several humiliating hours.  

I wasn’t about to let a little food poisoning get in the way of a career opportunity this big. It wasn’t like I was actually sick. It was kind of my fault anyway. I should have known better than to assume food from a well-established restaurant wouldn’t be contaminated with bacteria-infested parasites. I just needed to shake this off. Nothing a quick shower couldn’t fix.  If I wanted to play with the big boys, I needed to suck it up.

At around 6 am, I convinced myself I was well enough to go into work and tried to sell that idea to my husband. Then I threw up again.  He later told me he hid my car keys and had considered having me institutionalized for the day. I reluctantly conceded to staying home.  But I wasn’t about to give up. I decided I would run the meeting by conference call.  After all, this was my meeting and it couldn’t happen without me.  They needed me, and I couldn’t let them down.

No one else could do this job.

I set up a little office on the floor of my bathroom using my Squatty Potty as an ergonomic laptop stand. I spent the next 4 hours doing my best to host the meeting without giving away my misery.  In between episodes, I felt gratitude for the innovator of the mute button, whoever she was. As the meeting progressed, I could feel the dehydration coming on and I was becoming exhausted, but I was determined to power through. I don’t have any active memory of the meeting ending, but when my husband came home that evening, he found his lovely bride passed out on the tile.

The alternate ending to this story?  As soon as I realized I was not feeling well, I texted my boss and said, “I am ill and will not be working today.”  The end.

No Boundaries

If you’re work obsessed, you’re making a declaration to the world that you have no personal boundaries. This emotional insecurity causes you to seek affirmation from people that don’t necessarily care about your well-being.  You value their approval above your own family, relationships, and health. You will go to any herculean lengths to get it, thus giving those bosses, employees, colleagues and clients permission to unintentionally take advantage of you. 

For me, the inclination was borne out of fear.  Fear of rejection.  Fear of criticism.  Fear of getting fired.  Thus, I had invented a world where success was not measured by the results that I created but rather by my ability to be a good soldier and conquer under any circumstance, no matter how absurd.  

Can I work this weekend? Yes! … Am I available for a call late tonight?  I’m yours 24/7!  An unreasonable deadline? I got this!  Skip my medical exam to go to your meeting? Sure. The mammogram can wait. Run a personal errand for you? Why not.   Prepare a report while I’m on vacation? I didn’t want to go ziplining anyway.  Keep your adulterous secret?  I’m a vault. Babysit your kid so you can go to the boss’ birthday party?  I mean, I guess, ok.  Wait, you want me to take out your stitches?  Oh God….um, Ok.

To my family, it had become obvious that my boundary-less existence was self-destructive.  The morning after the big meeting, I was curled up in bed. My husband brought me a hot cup of chamomile tea and lovingly asked me a simple question, “What are you doing?” 

In that exact moment, I didn’t experience a crowning epiphany that changed the course of my life forever.  It was far less dramatic than that. My journey was long and involved self-reflection, seeking out mentorship and some trial and error.  I found that over time, the validation I was so desperately seeking was offering diminishing returns.

Taking Back Your Turf

If you find yourself in a similar pattern of behavior, I certainly hope your wake-up call wasn’t as agonizing as mine.  I will offer some things you might consider.

1. Listen

If your friends and family are dropping clues, and by clues, I mean subtle little comments like “You are a crazy, work-obsessed madcap! STOP being a doormat!”  I suggest you listen to them. They know.

2. Have Non-Negotiables

Your personal boundaries are your rules of engagement, based on the things in life you value.  They help you define your priorities. Write them down and leverage them as your guardrails. They are not meant to be negotiable.  

Here are mine:

  1. Faith
  2. Family
  3. Health
  4. Adventure
  5. Personal growth and development
  6. A bunch of other things like working out, wine with friends and getting my hair done.
  7. Work

The challenge is putting those non-negotiables to the test.  This involves training those around you on what they can expect.   You don’t have to immediately respond to every email and text. You don’t have to be the first one in the office every day.  You don’t have to strive for perfection in every single task.

You are a highly skilled, talented, lovable person, and there’s no reason to apologize for having a busy life and obligations outside of work. You’re not a super hero, so cut yourself a little slack.  It doesn’t mean you can’t work hard and invest time into your career. Just don’t do it at the expense of the things in your life that matter to you more.

3. The Art of the No

Upholding your Non-negotiables can only be possible if you master the art of saying “no”. “No” can feel highly confrontational so I’ve been practicing the art of saying-no-without-actually-saying-the-word-no.  One way is by saying yes, if.  Yes, if signals a tradeoff.  You’ll agree to something, but only in exchange for something else of equal or greater value.  “Yes, I will create that presentation for you if you cancel the afternoon meeting.”  

Another way is to get others to deduce that your no is actually a better alternative for them.  “I have a highly contagious cold with a 102 fever and I was going to take the day off to rest, but if you prefer, I can skip all that and help you work on your presentation. I’ll reserve that small windowless conference room and we can work on it together, side-by-side.”    

4. Be Human

I’m quite certain the legacy you wish to leave behind doesn’t involve someone who spent their career trying to prove themselves in an adrenalin-pumping pursuit of pointless accolades.  Your impact may be far more valuable by simply being a sensible voice of reason, having an open-minded attitude or bringing a new perspective to an old problem.  A human approach is an invitation for others to be more human too. Chances are, the people around you, especially the ones with the unreal expectations, are feeling similar pressures.  It’s better to meet them where they are than to become their victim. Speak your truth. And if you work in a place where being human is unwelcome, ask yourself why you are still working there.

Agi Saari

Agi Saari

Agi has 20 years of experience in technology consulting and executive leadership. She believes her success in tech was not attributed to hard work, talent and skill. Rather, it was through good timing and luck. By using her self-deprecating charm, coupled with a series of clerical errors and happy accidents, she tiptoed her way up the corporate food chain. She believes many women in tech and other male-dominated industries are plagued with similar feelings of unworthiness and chronic self doubt, and should cut themselves some slack.

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